A thug’s game played by … thugs?

Patrick Cooney on the task of civilising professional rugby

For reasons I don’t yet fully understand but suspect are related to the self-hating and indulgent habits of the ruling class of the British Isles in the 1800s, rugby union is a sport that induces genuinely neurotic levels of ‘handwringing’.

Rugby-loving Australians, given the impact of our encounter with that culture – which itself partly explains this country’s extremely uptight and regimental temperament when it comes to rules – and our unusual ‘competing codes’ sports landscape, are especially vulnerable to fits of performative panic about the state of the rules of the game we love.

I learned traveling to India recently just how much Australians love rules. Long story short I went from an authority-regulated culture to a community-regulated culture, and the difference was stark.

Unlike in India, where you basically have to physically endanger others to get them to even notice your behaviour, Australians love watching others follow rules. We love them to the point that we are genuinely very angry with people if they take a loose approach to the rules. In most cases this looseness doesn’t even need to cause actual inconvenience to generate a heated emotional response, the appearance of inconvenience works just fine.

As an example, think of how you might feel when people who know a barista will call their name when their coffee is ready wander off to hang out by their car, forcing café staff to yell repeatedly, give up, and wander out. They have to make eye contact with a couple of incorrect people along the way, and finally manage to get the attention of some flog who has been browsing memes this whole time and hand-deliver the thing.

In reality, this is a very small inconvenience to the small coffee-waiting community gathered nearer the machine. It adds, in extreme cases, 30 seconds to waiting times, and disrupts the otherwise peaceful and well-organised waiting experience only marginally. While disproportionate to that inconvenience, the level of emotional negativity the average Australian generates when this happens is crucial to understanding his or her approach to living in a group.

Unless they are in a serious hurry, the hypothetical Australian coffee-waiter is not even really upset about their own personal coffee-waiting time. The 30 seconds lost will probably actually be used later for looking at the ceiling or compulsively re-reading old twitter threads.

Instead, the Australians’ functioning-system-loving natures rebel in principled fury at the inefficiency created by this irredeemably selfish flog. I mean, what kind of Australian refuses to follow a simple set of social expectations that while slightly onerous in the short-term, in the long-term actually make everyone’s life just a little bit more bearable?

This is neither an exclusively bad thing nor an exclusively good thing. As a habit, it simply reflects a very team-oriented society. The whole mateship, solidarity, selflessness gestalt that we always get going when national culture comes across the news feed is real, and we are right to be proud of it, but as Australians we should also be wary of letting it drag us toward a dangerously stiff legalism and its negative side effects.

If you’re starting to feel lost, now is where the laws of rugby come in.

When considering the way professional rugby is played, always remember its context. Yes the context of the competition in which it is played – today’s example will be my beloved Super Rugby Pacific – but also the context of rugby’s professionalisation as a whole.

In the scheme of things, Pacific rugby has not been professional that long. Super Rugby was founded in 1996, when professionalisation had been official for just a year. Outside of Australia and New Zealand, it is even newer.

The Brumbies play the Sharks in 1996, Australia’s first professional season

Think back to the 2019 World Cup. That year Australia named Sekope Kepu, Christian Leali’ifano, and Will Genia, born in 1986, ’87, and ’88 respectively. Each of these players, had they played from age 6, the lowest graded age group in the Australian junior rugby system, started their rugby lives playing an amateur sport.

Acknowledging this generational shift is central to influencing and understanding playing culture. In all likelihood, the 2023 Australian World Cup squad will be the first Australian team to take to a World Cup with no players who have ever played competitive rugby under the law of amateurism.

For the first time in rugby history national teams are, to the man, players who first took to a rugby field knowing there might be one day a chance of competing for money – now the effect this had on their psyche is playing out on the field.

Of course, Australian players are not of a unique age bracket, and this is an emerging pattern across the rugby world. There are two games that immediately come to mind for me.

The first, and I hadn’t even rewatched it until I got going with this article, is the first test of the Australia vs England series from their 2022 tour. I know I can be a melodramatic individual at times, but watching this game, I was actually borderline disgusted with the behaviour of the players, especially the English players. The second was less dramatic and far less high-profile, but also a great example – the Round 4 Blues vs Crusaders game played at Eden Park this past weekend, and specifically, its second half.

The first thing that disgusted me in that first Australia vs England test in Perth, five minutes into the game, was when Noah Lolesio, receiving a box kick, is tackled and isolated. Australian forwards try to clean out, but England’s 7 Jack Willis gets the jackal.

Very normal footy, until England’s 5, Johnny Hill, who did approximately nothing to contribute and is now in the middle of the pack, stands over Lolesio and screams in the face of the just now standing up Dave Perecki so loud that it’s the only thing you can hear on the ref’s mic. Perecki gives him a bemused look and a very light push in the chest, and at the time I thought ‘weird, but I guess it’s the first penalty of the game and he’s pretty amped up.’

It turned out I was being far too generous. This behaviour continued all game. England players screamed during a line out and had to be told off by the referee. Hill shoved, with two fists (basically punching, if we’re honest) Darcy Swain in the face. The clownery culminated in an incident where Hill pulled Swain’s hair in a maul. Swain, in return, headbutted him lightly in the back, earning him a red card that stirred the Australian rugby media for several days afterwards.

Johnny Hill shoves his opponent in the face

I risk sounding like a codger here, but this is not something I ever saw from the previous generation of rugby players. As I grew up watching the ever-competitive Brumbies every winter, and Australia every spring, like most rugby fans I had a level of pride in the spirit in which rugby is played.

Rugby fans of a certain social ilk might think that its spirit comes from a gentlemanly culture. A famous Australian rugbyism riffs on this, claiming ‘Rugby is a thug’s game played by gentleman and soccer is a gentleman’s game played by thugs.’ But as an armchair rugby historian, this is not the case. What this spirit comes from, historically, is amateurism.

Without professional incentives on the line, rugby’s culture was fundamentally recreational. Yes, competitive, of course, but always with the caveat that your opponents are your mates for the day.

We see this idea given lip service all the time by clubs, which we must remember are now professional media organisations. Virtually any time two players fight on the field, an Instagram post the next day is sure to show them sharing a couple of promotionally prominent mid strength beers in traded jerseys, with the caption diligently noting this happens ‘only in rugby!’.

Allan Ala’alatoa and Eben Etzebeth enjoying a hug after a fight

Don’t get me wrong, this IS better than the players holding genuine bad blood. But we risk losing this culture and turning the players into a soccer-esque pack of well-paid bastards if we don’t look at why players are starting to behave the way Johnny Hill behaved in the Perth test. To see my point, remember that professional soccer was legalised in England in 1885. I can imagine things were probably very different when they weren’t playing for sheep stations.

Professionalism gives a sport a competition structure that teams cannot be booted from. This means that winning matters more than staying friendly with your opponents. In an amateur world, if people don’t want to play with you, you don’t get to play.

In a professional rugby world, not only does the money mean you always get an opponent willing to lace up and play, but you also get an actual cash reward if you beat them in the game. Not in a direct, short-term sense, but by building your career, securing a contract, advancing the status of your club so that everyone can be paid more, either there or, having leveraged their association with team success, somewhere else, you materially benefit from winning in modern rugby.

This is where my second example comes in. Every Australian rugby fan is acutely aware of the ethical haze that seems to descend upon the mind of New Zealand defenders as they defend their try-line, and the Crusaders approach to rugby in the Blues vs Crusaders game was a textbook example of rugby’s slipping spiritual norms.

The term at front of my mind watching that second half was ‘professional foul’. I couldn’t get it out of my head. As the crusaders gave away penalty after penalty, at the crucial moment in play, in the exact perfect way to minimise penalty try risk, but kill momentum, with perfect tactical use of the Blues’ scoreboard situation, I saw how professional the fouling was.

Scott Barrett not so much kills the ball as brutally assassinates it

It was deliberate, and I concede intelligent, abuse of the laws as they stand, and it earned the Crusaders the win in the end too. Having defended their try-line for 20 minutes, averaging roughly one infringement every attacking set from the Blues, they were able to kick free and end it. The need to win create this abuse, and the players perpetrating it were rewarded by the system.

The importance of the second example is this: professionalism carries into the game incentives not just for individual players to be a bit more rat-like, but for entire rugby systems – clubs, and eventually nations – to systematically undermine the spirit of rugby.

If rugby has decided the pros of professionalism are worth this, it needs to introduce incentives that balance that behaviour.

This raises the difficult question – what can be done?When we acknowledge that the current set of rugby laws was written with amateur incentives at its heart, it points us the right direction.

Either rugby bodies need to empower and train referees to identify unsportsmanlike fouling and use either the existing unsportsmanlike conduct law, which is a caution and then a yellow card, or the professional fouling law, which is a straight yellow. Or we can accept that a professional environment demands a little more ‘black and white’ than ‘grey’ and push for more legalistic rules.

For instance, Super Rugby Pacific – which led the way on the 20-minute red card and 50/22 – should mandate a set number of penalties required to trigger a yellow card for repeated infringements. A more creative option, and I think really promising, is that a second defensive infringement in the team’s own 22 in the same phase of play being an instant yellow card, but one that ends prematurely if the attacking team score. The best approach would probably combine changes to refereeing emphasis and one of these law changes.

Whatever the specific changes needed, slipping behaviour in professional games must be treated as a more serious concern. With money on the line, the good faith of players is sometimes at the mercy of their desire to win in a way that rugby is not structured – yet – to counteract, because of its amateur roots.

Ultimately, my call to rugby’s decision-makers is to ditch the exceptionalism. Accept that Rugby’s rule-abiding culture is an inheritance from a bygone era that they need to act to protect, not a fait accompli that can be taken for granted. As Australians we are all taught that when you see something you don’t like, you don’t just move on. You do something about it.

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